Helping to Prevent a Second Heart Attack

Most Americans survive a first heart attack but are at increased risk for another one. By taking action, however, they can significantly reduce their chances for a second heart attack.

Heart Attack Risk factors

These factors increase your risk for a second heart attack, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP):

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Being overweight or obese

  • High cholesterol

  • High blood sugar if you have diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Smoking

  • Excess stress

"People who have heart attacks, then implement appropriate lifestyle changes and follow their treatment plans, can expect to live a healthy, full life for years to come," says Clyde W. Yancy, M.D., a cardiologist in Dallas.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends the following actions to reduce your risk for a second heart attack.

Quit smoking

You can cut your risk of another heart attack in half by quitting smoking.

Eat a heart-healthy diet

By cutting back on saturated fat and trans fat, you can lower your LDL ("bad") cholesterol, one of the primary substances that cause heart attacks. Food manufacturers are currently reducing or eliminating trans fats from their products. You can avoid most trans fatty acids, however, by eating less margarine and fewer cookies, crackers, fries, doughnuts and other snack foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils.

Control your cholesterol

Besides eating a heart-healthy diet such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, you can help keep your cholesterol under control by exercising regularly. Your heart doctor may also prescribe a cholesterol-lowering medication such as a statin.

Exercise regularly

A study published in the journal Circulation found that heart attack survivors who increased their activity levels were nearly twice as likely as inactive patients to still be alive seven years after their attacks. Exercise is important to reduce your chance for a second heart attack because it strengthens the heart muscle. It also boosts your energy level and helps with weight management, cholesterol and blood pressure. The AHA recommends a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of walking or other moderately vigorous exercise at least three or four times each week.

If you've had a heart attack, you must get your doctor's OK before starting an exercise program.

If you have any of these symptoms during exercise, call your doctor immediately, the AAFP says:

  • Shortness of breath that lasts for more than 10 minutes

  • Chest pain or pain in your arms, neck, jaw or stomach

  • Dizzy spells

  • Pale or splotchy skin

  • Very fast heartbeat or irregular heartbeat

  • Cold sweats

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Weakness, swelling or pain in your legs

Maintain a healthy weight

Being overweight dramatically increases your risk of having a second heart attack. If you need to lose weight, ask your doctor for help. Your BMI (body mass index) should be between 18.5 and 24.9. This is the healthiest range.

Control high blood pressure

Follow your health care provider's suggestions.

Assess your mental health

Depression, stress, anxiety and anger can damage your heart and overall health. See a therapist if you need help maintaining your emotional balance.

Take your medications as directed

Taking your heart, cholesterol and blood pressure medications as directed and having regular heart doctor visits are imperative for avoiding a second heart attack.

"In addition to following your medical prescription, the actions you can take that don't cost a thing -- like exercising, improving your diet and losing weight -- are equally important in preventing a second heart attack," says Dr. Yancy. "It's all about making wise decisions."